Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Magical Realism
A powerful, haunting, contemporary debut that steps seamlessly from the horrors of people-trafficking to the magic of African folklore, by an award-winning Ghanaian-British filmmaker.
Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people.
Fourteen years on she's a member of Mama Rose's unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them:
A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall... if Sante is to tell their story and her own.
Rich in the rhythms and colours of Africa and glittering circus days. Unflinching in its dark revelations about life. Yaba Badoe's novel is beautiful and cruel and will linger long in the memory.
I had heard little to nothing about A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars prior to requesting it on NetGalley. I’ve been trying to expand my reading of literature by authors of cultures foreign to my own and the book’s premise spoke to me, so I was more than delighted than we’d been accepted for this novel.
A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is pitched as a contemporary but I believe magical or animist realism describes it best. The story combines contemporary themes such as people-trafficking, the flow of refugees from Africa to Europe, and the search for identity and belonging with magical elements of African folklore.
If this storyline had a rhythm, it’d be a quiet one. Badoe laid the focus on Sante’s past, her discovery of self, and her struggles rather than spinning a fast-paced plot with twists and turns. Character-driven as it was, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars delved into intra- and interpersonal developments. Where the Ghanaian main character was concerned, the storyline involved a lot of dreaming and remembering and interactions with ancestral spirits, which slowed down the pace but gave it a special touch. I love human-animal relationships in literature, so the close bond between Sante and her golden eagle Priss was delightful to me. Badoe brought the – what I believe to be Ghanaian – folklore to life with its images rich in colour, making the spirits of the dead an integral part of the story and the theme of redemption and justice. I was curious how an author of Ghanaian heritage was going to handle questions of race and ‘othering’. From Sante’s point of view, there seemed to be a wider gap between civilised and travelling folk than dark- and fair-skinned people, but Badoe allowed adult characters to voice political views. Badoe addressed the dehumanisation of refugees and the sinking of their ships at our doorstep in a subtle manner, I thought, and raised the focal point of our lives’ worth depending on our skin colour. Though there are, of course, many points of view to be considered with regard to the flow of refugees, the voice of an African refugee girl who survived the sinking of her boat is a powerful and relevant one. Badoe also beautifully illustrated this dehumanisation with the spirits of the dead who had come to raise their voices and make their deaths meaningful.
“Strangers pitch up on our shores and we herd them into camps. They come in broken boats and we let them drown.”
Although the plot certainly involved the horrors of people-trafficking, I didn’t feel like this was the story’s core at all. On one hand, this disappointed me because the book is pitched as a contemporary read, and I expected to see a broad scope of this issue; on the other hand, I hadn’t bargained for so much magical realism which was a pleasant surprise. I think I would have preferred it, though, if Badoe had zeroed in on one central theme, rather than trying to combine several contemporary issues in one short book.
The exquisite prose further underpinned the book’s whimsical atmosphere. I did feel, however, that the storytelling (as well as any romantic content) had a juvenile touch, so I’d place A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars in the younger section of YA. At fourteen, Sante was a young narrator but her voice captured me from the first page nevertheless. Relationships were certainly part of the storyline, yet mostly took place of an emotional level (as in “crushes”) rather than a physical one, which was absolutely fine by me. What Badoe did well was depicting the less pretty sides of romantic feelings, such as jealousy and disagreements. It is noteworthy that A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars features an f/f romance (involving a side character), which almost seemed more important than the main character’s relationship.
Overall, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars addresses important themes, narrated by an authentic main character and enhanced by African folklore, and excites with a whimsical note and lovely writing. With regard to its themes, I loved how the story communicated through images, for example the spirits, more than through words. However, I feel like the story swayed between several points of focus, capturing neither at the end. Both the dehumanisation of refugees/migrants and people-trafficking are relevant, but I’d have preferred a more in-depth discussion on one topic rather than having several issues addressed briefly, especially since the book was really short.
** I received an eARC of this book from the publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotations may be subject to change in the final copy.**